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In art, a window on the world

Linked to fun lessons on history, science and math, art is more than something to look at.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

ODESSA -- One of my favorite commercials features a rather droll looking woman leading a slack-jawed group of school children through an art museum.

As they move listlessly along, the guide repeats tonelessly, "We're walking, we're walking, we're looking, we're looking."

The humorous PBS spot is meant to suggest that learning needn't be as dull as that art museum tour.

And neither should art!

You and your children can do a lot more with fine art than walk past it and look.

Art, in all its myriad forms and aspects provides an engaging window not only to form and function, but to history, religion, science and math.

It's a multifaceted learning tool that can be appreciated at a multitude of levels, from the most basic joys of fingerpainting to the geometry of origami.

Art offers an unparalleled view of culture and history from the beginnings of time, creating our most intriguing glimpses of early human cultures through cave art in France, through elaborate sculptures and building construction in Greece, Rome and Egypt, and through religious frescoes, tapestries and other artwork throughout Europe.

Art tells the history of Africa and Australia through carvings and paintings. It illustrates the richness of Asia through painting, pottery, construction and design. It chronicles the pace of culture through pyramids and carvings throughout South America, and the rich diversity of art throughout history in North America tells our story as well.

One of the best integrations of art, history and culture can be found in Sister Wendy Beckett's book, The Story of Painting (Dorling Kindersley). It's a great addition to any library and a beautiful look at history.

Art's relationship to history, religion and culture may seem obvious, but art is frequently a creative expression of science and mathematics, too.

According to "A New Perspective in Science and Art" (, the association between science and art has been recognized at least since the early 1400s, when Leon Battista Alberti suggested that perspective could best be achieved through a geometrical technique aided by the use of a glass device with a grid.

Artists Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Durer were among those who used modified versions of Alberti's glass grid.

Another Renaissance artist, former goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi, tried applying a silver background on a painted panel to incorporate the color and real life, real time images of sky and clouds to paintings in an early attempt at "perspective painting and interactive art." This is not unlike how the Astronauts Memorial is constructed at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, creating a very striking example of science in art.

Brunelleschi also experimented with anamorphic art, distorted images which can be viewed properly only through the use of special devices or by looking at the image from a particular angle. These types of images were later incorporated into Victorian picture books that required a curved mirror to properly view the art.

For Renaissance artists like Brunelleschi and da Vinci, science was integral to art because only a thorough understanding of the natural world could render the realistic art they sought to create. Anatomy was studied extensively, as was mathematics, in an effort to recreate three-dimensional images as precisely as possible in a two- dimensional medium; and to render three-dimensional projects, such as elaborate churches, as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Pyramids are another obvious work of scientific and mathematical art, principally addressing proportion. Mazes and labyrinths explore and express geometry in some of its most attractive manifestations.

Kaleidoscopes are an obvious choice in geometric art. The kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster. He named his device using the Greek words kalos, or beautiful; eidos, or form; and scopos. or watcher: beautiful form watcher.

M.C. Escher's famous interlocking fish and other shapes are a celebration of tessellations, arrangements of closed shapes that completely cover a plane without overlapping or leaving gaps. Mathematically, tessellations are typically composed of polygons or other regular shapes. Artistically inspired by tile patterns he found in Spain, Escher saw an endless variety of possibilities using irregular shapes, and especially enjoyed metamorphosing shapes into one another within a single artwork. In our modern world, art and math and science remain inextricably linked. Jurassic Park fans who read the Michael Crichton book have encountered fractals -- considered by some the ultimate mathematical art.

Fractals, short for "fractional dimensions," are geometric figures which, however minutely reduced in size or however immensely increased, retain a richness of detail.

Fractal art is kaleidoscopic in nature, revealing an infinite range of form and detail, and it's also apparent in nature, in the repeating patterns of leaves and coastlines.

And of course, Origami remains a timeless exploration of art and geometry that explores everything from bisected angles to perpendicularity, congruence, symmetry and more.

So next time you chaperone a field trip to the art museum, or find yourself with some time on your hands near one of the great galleries and museums in St. Petersburg or Tampa or Sarasota, take a second look.

There's more to art than meets the eye!

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-- Freelance writer Theresa Willingham homeschools her three children in Odessa. You can reach her by e-mail at

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